WHERE KOGI GOES, LA FANS FOLLOW
part2 of "Keep On Truckin'!- Immigrants Keep Food Trucks in High Gear"
It's easy to dismiss food cart dining as just another trend, one that will soon burn out on the flames of its own popularity, as trends inevitably do. But consider the fact that Kogi, the popular Los Angeles-based fleet of trucks, has more than three times more Twitter followers than the Council on Foreign Relations, and, all told, more social media supporters than some small countries have citizens. Trend or not, there is something astounding in Kogi's reach and resonance.
It's Kogi's tasty Korean-Mexican fusion fare that has its legions of fans clamoring. Using Twitter and other social media outlets to announce locations and specials, the trucks cruise the streets of Los Angeles serving up fusion dishes such as Kogi Kimchi Quesadillas, tacos stuffed with Korean barbequed short ribs and spicy pork, and their signature Kogi sliders.
Kogi is the brainchild of Seoul-born and LA-raised Chef Roy Choi and his business partners Filipino-born Mark Manguera and Korean-American Caroline Shin. Choi and Manguera met while working at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, and after Choi was laid off from his position as Chef de Cuisine, the pair ran with their idea of a Korean taco truck. Since forming in late 2008, the brand's explosive popularity has led to the addition of four more trucks ⎯ a bona fide fleet. And in early 2010, the team opened Chego, a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Yet one has to wonder if there is something beyond tacos and quesadillas to inspire such a devoted following. Within a few minutes of chatting with Choi, that something becomes apparent: it's the way both Choi and Kogi speak to a populist movement, in food and in culture. There is a determination in Choi to be his own person, even if it means being an outsider, and a fierce embrace of Los Angeles's ethnic subcultures, which live largely in the shadow of the city's grandeur.
"Kogi is a very personal story," says Choi. "People think it's Korean-Mexican fusion, but it's not. It's the flavor of K-town and LA and the blocks where we're from, of how we immigrated and how we started speaking English. All of that is in the taco. It's like graffiti."
Much of Kogi is influenced by Choi's upbringing in an immigrant family, both the good and the bad. His parents were highly educated in Korea, but never found employment in the United States that made use of their degrees and doctorates. The Choi family moved often, from neighborhood to neighborhood and job to job. They opened liquor stores, convenience stores, and restaurants, determined to make their own opportunities when none were presented. "It's been a tough life, let me be real," acknowledges Choi. "You have certain realities facing you, like racism, language barriers, not being offered certain jobs even though you know you can do them." But, he says of his parents, "that was a common thread growing up, the stubbornness in the way they've held onto their lives." In time, their tenacity paid off, enabling the Choi family to move into a more affluent lifestyle as Roy and his sister grew up.
It was that same willfulness in defining the terms of his own life that led Choi to launch Kogi. "That thing called success is very twisted ⎯ everything Kogi is, and what I am, is everything I was told not to be. Chilling on the street, talking to anybody, no matter where they came from, sharing the last cigarette, eating on the street, wasting the time, watching the streetlights come on. All of these things that we are expressing through Kogi, I was told that those same things were a waste of my life."
Despite graduating as speaker of his class from the renowned Culinary Institute of America, and holding positions in prestigious establishments such as Le Bernardin in New York City, Choi was not at home in the world of fine dining. Indeed, it was not until Kogi took off that Choi really came into his own as a chef. He was named one of Food and Wine's Best New Chefs in 2010, and Kogi has been featured in publications as diverse as the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and Giant Robot magazine, and has earned mentions on the BBC and even at a recent TED conference.
Whether cooking in a five-star kitchen or selling food out of a shopping cart, Choi believes what matters most is dedication and resourcefulness. "A lot of that comes from an immigrant background: taking what you have, making it the best you can, and living a better life. I had a truck, no job, a few thousand bucks; and we did the best we could."
Perhaps the clearest indicator of Choi's success to date is the number of trucks around the country with similar concepts. There's Chi'Lantro in Austin, Taco Chino in Chicago, West Coast Tacos in Indianapolis, and Kimchi Taco Truck in New York City. By and large, most of these purveyors of Korean tacos credit Kogi with sparking the trend, but Choi shrugs off the hype. "It would be selfish to be caught up in the movement," he says.
Despite the proliferation of such trucks, neither Choi nor Kogi show any signs of slowing down or burning out. This is, typically, what separates a trend from a revolution.
Published by permission of The Vilcek Foundation, © 2011. The Vilcek Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to honoring the contributions of foreign-born artists and scientists to the United States. Learn more at www.vilcek.org.